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Rachel Rockwell, Chicago director, choreographer dies at 49

Director Rachel Rockwell in rehearsals for Lerner and Loewe’s' "Brigadoon" at the Goodman Theatre in 2014. | PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN

Rachel Rockwell, one of Chicago’s prominent directors and choreographers has died. She was 49. Ms. Rockwell had been battling ovarian cancer.

According to her father, Gary Heyde, Ms. Rockwell was on the road in Seattle working on a show when she recently fell ill. The gravity of her battle with cancer over the course of the past few years was not widely known, Heyde said, and she had repeatedly been in and out of Loyola Medical Center since March.

Rachel Rockwell (far left) directs a scene from “October Sky” at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire in 2015. | Courtesy Marriott Theatre

Ms. Rockwell amassed a vast and grand body of work in Chicago theater and was best-known for her critically acclaimed work on musicals, most notably at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook, where her credits included “The Sound of Music,” “Ragtime,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Les Miserables” and “Oliver!,” as well as “Disney’s Aladdin,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and most recently “Mamma Mia!” at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. At Chicago Shakespeare Theater her credits boasted “Shrek,” the world premiere of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and last year’s acclaimed production of “Shakespeare in Love,” among many others. She made her Goodman Theatre debut in 2014 with a revisionist revival of “Brigadoon.” Her work at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora included “In the Heights” and “42nd Street.”

Rachel Rockwell directs a scene from her production of “Shakespeare in Love” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. | Joe Mazza Photography

Ms. Rockwell was born Natalie Rachel Heyde in Columbia, Missouri, and grew up in Indiana, graduating from the University of Evansville. She began her stage career as a ballet dancer. Her first Chicago show was as a dancer in “The Will Rogers Follies” at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. She soon made a name for herself as an actress in numerous musical productions including “A Chorus Line,” “Show Boat” and “Babes in Arms” (opposite George Wendt). In a 2010 interview with the Sun-Times she explained her true passion was directing, a career which came to fruition on the stages of Chicago-area theaters.

Rachel Rockwell directed five productions at Paramount Theatre between 2012-2014, including the professional Chicago debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” | Liz Lauren

“I was always directing — always very critical — I just didn’t know it,” Ms. Rockwell said in the interview, laughing. “Now I’m getting paid to do it.”

She changed her name to “Rockwell” after her father (who is also known as novelist Austin Gary) who is also a numerologist told her a name change was a good idea. “We were talking on the phone one day about her name change and I told her to keep Rachel, and then she looked out the window and saw the street sign for Rockwell. I told her those names would bring her lots of success in the limelight and illumination.”

In a statement, Marriott Theatre executive producer Terry James expressed heartfelt loss of “one of the greats of Chicago theater.”

“Rachel is a true Chicago theatre success story,” James’ statement noted. “Rachel traversed a highly successful theatrical path throughout Chicagoland’s major theaters and beyond. Lucky for us, Rachel called Marriott one of her homes for almost 25 years. … While directing last season’s “Mamma Mia!” Rachel was taking chemo treatments on her days off and never missed a day. Old school! The possibilities were just blossoming. She possessed all the qualities needed other than the time to realize what was definitely ahead for her.”

Rick Boynton, Chicago Shakespeare Theater creative producer and a longtime friend of Ms. Rockwell said via statement Tuesday: “When Rachel was directing a show, everyone — actors, designers, crew, producers, (truly everyone) — felt confident and certain about the creative journey ahead. She was passionate about her vision and could not only articulate it with great eloquence, but also clearly saw the path forward to fruition. Her prolific career was filled with brilliant productions; how fortunate Chicago audiences were to experience the signature work of this gifted director. She was an artistic force of nature who treated everyone with respect, kindness and love — a magical combination of astounding talent and beautiful person. The entire CST family is so profoundly sad by the loss of our dear friend and colleague.”

“She made actors better for having worked with her,” Heyde said of his daughter’s skill as a director. “She once tole me, ‘I want to create a community of people who are there to bring each other up, not put each other down.’ And I know that’s exactly what she did.”

In addition to her father, Ms. Rockwell is survived by her husband Garth Helm and their son, Jake, her mother Glory Kissel Heyde, and brother Jeremy Spencer (drummer for metal band Five Finger Death Punch).

A memorial service is planned for July 9 at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook.

Rachel Rockwell made her Goodman debut with a a lavish production of “Brigadoon” in 2014. | PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN